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Black Narcissus: The Criterion Collection

Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger's 1947 Black Narcissus is a tale of repressed nuns — a loaded topic that takes masters to tell. Starring Deborah Kerr, the story concerns, a large temple in the Himalayas given to an English nunnery, as five nuns are sent to colonize it and assist the locals. Sister Clodah (Kerr) is put in charge of the new convent, and though she thinks she's up to the task, she is viewed by some as too young and too arrogant for the assignment. In addition to the difficult Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), Sister Clodah must also deal with the cynical, attractive Mr. Dean (David Farrah), a Eurpoean who knows quite a bit about the local culture, a young girl to watch over (Jean Simmons), who is desperately looking for a husband, and a local prince (Sabu) who has come to receive an education, but unfortunately is an eligible bachelor — stylish and intriguing and wearing Black Narcissus, a cologne from England. As the film progresses, the tension in the nunnery grows. Sisters Ruth and Clodah find themselves drawn to Mr. Dean, though Clodah can't admit it; Ruth is easily provoked and soon troublesome; one of the nuns plants flowers instead of food; and as the seasons change, Clodah is drawn to reflecting on her previous life, which makes it harder for her to behave like a nun, especially around the attractive Mr. Dean. As a British film, one might expect Black Narcissus to cover the kind of stiff-upper-lip, bottled-emotions territory of Merchant-Ivory or David Lean — it is surprising then how sensual and evocative the film is. Jack Cardiff won an Oscar for his color cinematography in Black Narcissus, and his luscious three-strip Technicolor imagery well deserved the award. But equally, it's Powell's use of the colorful Himalayas to imply the inner passions of the nuns that makes the photography so excellent — a brilliant creative choice, and the film smolders because of it. Black Narcissus was one of Criterion's first Laserdiscs — released with analog audio, it had no extras other than an audio commentary with Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell. This track has been preserved on the DVD edition, and it is marvelous to listen to, as Scorsese, though muted, is obviously enthusiastic about the film. Powell was near the end of his life (he died in 1990) when the track was recorded, but he has some solid observations about the shoot. Also included is a 27-minute documentary on Jack Cardiff's cinematography, which features interviews with Cardiff, Kathleen Byron (who still looks beautiful), Scorsese, and Ian Christie, among others. Production stills, photos of deleted scenes, theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Damon Houx

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